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tv   Dateline NBC  NBC  June 10, 2012 7:00pm-9:00pm EDT

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-- never give up till i walk out. the truth is there. >> she was the popular valedictorian at poplar high. and one summer's night, down by the river -- >> i could hear all these girls saying, get her. chasing her. >> dragged her. >> a horrible scream. >> the whispers were heard all through town. this was a murder by a gang of mean girls. >> this may have been some kind of killing involving some local girls. >> so what is he doing in prison? >> the truth is i did not kill kim nice. >> sentenced to 100 years. >> guilty as charged. not one moment of doubt. >> was he really innocent?
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did someone else commit the perfect crime? tonight, "dateline" investigates. >> these witnesses have the courage to come forward. >> can we help solve this heart-pounding mystery? >> unreal. absolutely unreal. >> "whispers in a small town." welcome to "dateline," everyone, i'm lester holt. a teenager in a small town, a terrible killing on a summer's night. it's a case that some thought might never be solved, even though somebody was already in prison. then, there were the whispers. of whispers that never stopped, that the suspect locked away was somehow an innocent man. that the real killer or killers had walked free. that's what drew us to this case, and drove us to uncover some long-buried secrets.
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here's keith morrison. >> reporter: up in the northeast corner of montana, hours and hours by car from the big, rustic ranches of the famously wealthy, is the winding missouri of lewis and clark, and a small, forgotten town, which once carried the stain of an unenviable reputation. poplar is the name of the place. a generation ago so frequently soaked in the blood of violent death, it was known as stab city. this is the story of the most vexing, then and now, of any of them. the mystery of a lifetime, whose remarkable turns and twists are still at this very moment posing some troubling questions about american justice. ♪ here is where it happened. 1979, summer was here. school was out. the party was on. kim nice, 17, school valedictorian, national honor society graduate, was celebrating.
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she was finally about to escape this town for college. back then kim's sister pam was just 14. >> that was the way it is, you know. >> but around midnight, june 15th, 1979, kim was restless, wanted out. and this time without her little sister. >> didn't say where she was going. didn't say what she was doing. >> and she took off? >> mm-hmm. >> the scene is burned into her memory. as is the case of her father in the morning, less than eight hours later. >> he showed me upstairs, sat me next to my mom and said something terrible has really happened. he said kimmy is dead. and i was just -- >> gone numb? >> still sometimes, you know, it's like -- i can't believe this. >> at 7:00 a.m., at a well-known party spot just half a mile outside police had found the family pickup, abandoned. officers followed a trail of
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blood from the truck down a dirt track 250 feet or so to the poplar river and there they found the battered body of kim nice. >> the term i've used is overkill. >> dean malum was an undersheriff and later the county sheriff in charge of the investigation. >> there were 20 or 21 blows received to kim's skull, which any of them could have caused her death. >> there was rage involved? >> it was a high level of rage. someone was very angry. >> we drove an old truck, same year, different color, to the last place kim was seen. 12:45 a.m., a gas station. then, to the crime scene itself where that night there was no shortage of evidence. blood everywhere inside the cab of the pickup. fingerprints, more than two dozen. foot prints in and around the trail where kim's body was dragged to the river. and on the truck near the passenger door, a palm print.
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and what appeared to be blood. the fbi prepared a report. the bloody palm print, it said, would have to have been left by the unsub, that's fbi lingo, unknown subject. the murderer. >> we worked very, very, very, very hard at determining whose that was. and obviously we had a very vested interest in talking to that person. >> in addition, the sweep through town had turned up what the fbi called an extremely bloody towel on a fence in town less than a mile from the crime scene. a lab report linked two hairs on the towel to kim nice. and said the hair evidence suggests a possible connection between the towel and the murder. was the blood on the towel ever tested? >> i believe it was sent to the montana state lab. it was not kim's blood that was on the towel. >> and the blood then belonged to her killer? kim's cash and credit cards were still in her purse.
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this was not a robbery. nor was there any indication of sexual assault. the lack of apparent motive in the murder of a pretty 17-year-old girl led many people to wonder if perhaps a standard crime scene scenario did not apply. in fact rumors were already around town. this was not a man who committed the murder, or a woman even, but a group of girls. women's contemporaries. their supposed motive? jealousy. kim was attractive, she was successful, she was class valedictorian, boys loved her, and she was about to leave poplar behind for good. there were stories around town that this may have been some kind of killing involving some local girls. >> that was one of the -- you know, if you will, the theories that folks around town had is that there may have been three or four of kim's peers that were involved with her death. >> bobby clincher lived down the block from the nice family. what did you hear?
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>> her grandfather had told me, well, they're looking at the girls, call indications are that it was the girls. >> lists of suspects' names appeared in fbi documents. those girls, kim's boyfriend, also. other teens. but all of them were cleared when their prints didn't match those found at the scene. >> i felt bad for her parents. >> bobbi clincher's connection to the nice family was more than neighborly. her son barry had even dated kim's sister pam. like many kids in town, barry had been listed as a suspect in the documents, too. as the mystery deepened, mothers and fathers questioned their own children, wondering if there was some code of silence they could crack. did you question him harshly about it? >> mm-hmm. he said repeatedly he didn't know anything about it. the only thing he knew was what he had heard. what he'd been told. >> and as the investigation stalled, the nice family took it upon themselves to try to solve kim's killing. writing heartrending letters to
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the local paper. your dad tried very hard and your family, your whole family, tried hard to get people to help. >> yeah. >> asking, begging for help. >> mm-hmm. >> how did the community respond? >> they didn't. >> at all? >> not really. it was like they didn't care. >> summer passed and fall and winter. more names surfaced. more fingerprints were compared. more dead ends. but -- did you ever kind of give up on the idea that you'd figure it out? >> no, never. there was no doubt in my mind that we would solve this, this homicide. >> and the sheriff's patience would be rewarded. but the answers he was sure he would get would wait for years. and come from a place he would never have suspected. >> when we come back, a suspect emerges, and something even more. a confession. >> you've heard a lot of confessions over the years. >> oh, yes. >> and when you heard that one,
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had the ring of authenticity? >> oh, absolutely. >> when "whispers in a small town" continues. [ male announcer ] it sizzles, ready for anything. its smooth taste spreads across your bread's delicate surface. while melting into those creamy mashed potatoes... bringing a rich, warm tenderness to your peas. ohhh! it's i can't believe it's not butter! fresh butter taste with 70% less saturated fat than butter go ahead. cheat on butter. you naughty thing. [ man ] i love you guys. [ laughs ] i mean, just, you know, the whole heist thing. just putting jewels in teddy bears. this guy's wearing a wire the whole time. right? look at that! he's wearing a wire! [ laughs ] all right, let's do this.
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the killing of poplar high's valedictorian kim nees shook this troubled town to its foundation. but the solution to the mystery proved to be as elusive as gossip on the montana wind. by 1983, kim should have been finishing college. instead, after almost four ye s years, investigators seemed no closer to finding the killer or killers who'd beaten her to death and dumped her body in the poplar river. the nees family had long since left town, shattered. >> my mom and i really never really talked about it. we went our separate ways. >> it's almost like you lost your mother, though, too. >> my dad he always had to have it together because one of us would be not having it together. >> years of trying to match those fingerprints found at the murder scene and the telltale bloody palm print had come to nothing. suspects, classmates, neighbors, even that group of girls long
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whispered about had been investigated and apparently cleared. but a break in the case was about to come. and from across the country, in, of all places, the town of monroe, louisiana. it was january, 1983. sheriff dean malum picked up the phone one day and found himself talking to a detective from way down south. >> he asked if i was aware of an individual by the name of barry beach. wanted to know if mr. beach was or had ever been a suspect in a homicide in roosevelt county. >> barry beach. he was the son of that neighbor who had been so upset about the murder. the boy, now a man of nearly 21, who once dated the victim's sister pam. beach had not quite found a purpose in life by then. he had gone to louisiana to be with his father and stepmother. he and they didn't see eye to eye. in fact, his stepmother had beach arrested on a minor charge, and then told police the
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boy was once a suspect in an unsolved montana murder. well, it just so happened investigators in louisiana were scratching their heads over the murders of three women here in monroe. could beach be their killer? they decided to call the montana sheriff, and ask some questions about beach. and the sheriff told them about a polygraph beach had been given a couple of years back in the case of kim nees. >> barry would never respond, i didn't kill her. i did not do that. it was things like, i don't think i could have done that. i don't remember. those types of things. >> you had a hunch? >> i would say something that was a lot stronger than a hunch. >> my feeling from talking to the sheriff malum was the fact that, you know, he was a viable suspect. >> he was at the louisiana detective calling the montana sheriff. he soon discovered that beach had met one of the louisiana victims. so now he wondered, could beach be a serial killer? what made you think that he was the kind of guy who would be
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your prime suspect? >> the fact that he was a suspect in a murder already. the fact that he did have contact with one of our victims. we felt an obligation to look at him seriously as a person of interest in those investigations. >> so the detective conducted a series of interviews with barry beach over two days. here at the washtau parish sheriff's office to determine barry's truthfulness, especially about the killing of kim nees. >> when we get up to the point of her murder, you know, we asked him, you know, were you responsible? and during this part of the interview he kept saying, i don't remember if i was or not. it was not a, quote, denial. it was, you know, i just don't remember. >> soon the detective was joined in his work by commander alfred calhoun, known in these parts, when it came to murder investigations, as something of a closer. >> alfred stepped out of the interview room, says he wants to talk to you. so when i walked in the room
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barry was crying. and he admitted to killing kimberly nees. >> a tape recorder was turned on. and there it was, barry beach confessed to killing kim nees. you heard a lot of confessions over the years. >> oh, yes. >> and when you heard that one, had the ring of authenticity? >> oh, absolutely. >> when he heard the news, the sheriff in montana was convinced they had the real killer. >> this confession is good. it's solid. he did it. >> and why were authorities so sure beach killed kim nees? it was his confession. the story he told. the afternoon before she was killed, beach said, he came down to the river for a beer and a swim. and when it was time to go home, his car wouldn't go. he lost his temper. got furious. walked home, went to bed. ah, but then beach said he woke up around midnight, went for a walk. kim picked him up in the car, they went for a drive, smoked a joint, and when she rebuffed his sexual advances he became
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enraged. picked up a crescent wrench from the floor of the truck, beat her, chased her outside, found a fire iron, a possible second weapon police said they hadn't told anybody about, and finished her off. and then beach said he put kim's body in a plastic garbage bag and dragged it down here to the river and threw it in. threw the murder weapons in there, too, and took his own bloody clothes to a railway car and burned them. and then he went home. and that was his story. his words. and, detectives thought, it was consistent with the evidence. it all, they felt, finally made sense. more than three years after the murder, the mystery was solved. all the rumors about other suspects, including that group of girls long whispered of in connection with the crime, were apparently wrong. barry beach said that he alone killed kim nees. and after? authorities in louisiana allowed him to call and break the news
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to his mother, back in montana. >> he said, mom, i confessed to it. and i said, barry, why did you confess to something you didn't do? and he said, well, they're going to come back to montana, and they're going to help me prove that i didn't do this. >> cops from louisiana going to help her son prove he didn't commit the montana murder he just confessed to? that sounded strange. what did you think when you heard that? >> i was like, whoa. what's going on here? >> but when word reached the victim's sister, pam, barry's one-time girlfriend, she was aghast. what was your sense of the possibility that he actually -- >> i just couldn't believe that he would do that. or even he would have -- would be around her. >> but despite pam's doubts, barry beach was about to go on trial. and make astonishing claims about what really led to that confession. >> coming up, why would someone confess to a crime he didn't
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by the fall of 1983, barry beach was back in montana, from louisiana, to stand trial for the murder of kim nees. a trial many thought would be mere formality. all those whispers, the rumors about girls from the town of poplar being the real killers, must have been wrong. after all, barry beach had confessed to her murder. what more was there to say? well, actually, quite a bit. weren't exactly a choir boy, were you? >> no, sir. >> this is barry beach. >> i was your very typical small-town teen. i drove fast cars. i liked rock 'n' roll. i drank. >> to excess occasionally? >> to excess quite often. >> smoked a joint once in awhile? >> yes, sir. i used dope. >> and you liked to party? >> every chance i got, to be honest with you. >> fact, by the time he was 18, beach had two duis.
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had spent close to a month in jail for traffic offenses. and on the day of the murder, in june 1979, barry says, he was doing the usual. drinking too much. smoking some dope. swimming in the poplar river outside town when his car broke down. >> i was mad at my car. i actually ended up hitting my vehicle several times in the door. i banged my fist on the windshield. i vented my anger. >> forced then to walk the mile back into town he says, with a good buzz on and no one at home when he finally arrived. and then -- >> i actually just went straight to my bedroom and went to sleep. >> what time was this? >> that was somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 in the evening. >> and barry beach says that's where he stayed the night kim nees was killed. in bed. but what about that detailed confession he gave to detectives in louisiana? he says something quite different there. well, that's where it gets interesting. beach doesn't deny that he confessed to the killing.
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far from it. you said you killed that girl up in montana. >> yes, sir. i said that -- on tape, that i killed kim nees. >> and that's where the story enters the twilight zone. barry beach says he believed he was about to be released from prison, those minor charges called in by his stepmother about to be dropped when suddenly found himself in an interrogation room answering questions about murder. those detectives seemed to think he had committed those three unsolved louisiana murders. the murders they were trying so very hard to solve. >> the next thing i know, they got very accusatory and started not only telling me that i knew these girls, but that i had killed them. and then they started showing these pictures of dead bodies and told me, remember doing this? and i'd say, i was telling them
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i didn't do it. i didn't kill anyone. >> and the day wore on, beach claims, it was commander alfred calhoun who ratcheted up the pressure. >> he promised me that he would personally see me fry in the louisiana electric chair. and then he spent half an hour to an hour explaining to me the different effects of a person when they are electrocuted. all the way from their hair being singed and catching on fire, how it affects your heart when the electricity hits your body. >> what were you feeling in the middle of all this? >> i was scared to death, keith. but i knew that he would convict me. he would execute me. if given the chance. >> then, says beach, the talk turned to that murder in montana. the murder of kim nees. you were asked to speculate about how she may have been killed? >> yes, sir. well it started off that they asked me to speculate how it happened. then i was asked to give a hypothetical story using myself as the perpetrator.
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>> by that time, said beach, he was terrified, would say just about anything to get out of there. he says he remembers his interrogator telling him he could work to prove his innocence later, back in montana. if he just confessed now. and so, though memory is rather fuzzy, that is what he says he did. you remember any of what you said? >> i don't deny that the confession took place. i don't remember all the details. >> but, barry, come on. i really don't think i'm going to tell a police officer i killed a girl if i didn't kill her. >> that is hard for most people in america to believe, that a person could be led to confess to a crime they did not commit. >> well, why would you do it? >> i was a 20-year-old kid, 2300 miles away from my real home. they scared me so bad i would have said anything to get away from them. >> just to make it stop? >> anything to make it stop.
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>> and so, barry beach now says he confessed to a crime he did not commit. but in 1984, as authorities in montana prepared to put beach on trial for murder, there were complications. that tape recorded confession of barry beach's? somehow it was gone. >> i went to pull the tapes out of evidence, and the custodian of the records said that he had erased the tape. and we went ballistic. because this was a murder investigation. >> but detectives breathed a sigh of relief. he had made a transcript of the confession. so when the trial began at the courthouse in montana, there would be no confession on tape to play for the jurors, they'd read jay vye's transcript, instead. still the prosecutor was confident. >> i had a detailed confession that only the killer could have given. >> within a decade mark rosco would be elected montana's governor. but in 1984 he was an assistant
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montana attorney general. called in to prosecute barry beach. >> he gave a very detailed confession that matched the things that were discovered at the crime scene. from the two different murder weapons, to what he did with the body, and why the blood spots were located where they were by the truck, and down by the river. on and on and on. >> as the trial wore on, barry beach, sitting at the defendant's table, had a sinking feeling. what did that feel like? >> you want to scream at somebody and say wait a minute, you're wrong. and you can't. the only thing you can do is sit there and do as your attorney tells you to do. but man i wanted to jump up and tell them they were wrong. >> when testimony was finished, the jury was back, in just six hours. the verdict, guilty. for barry beach's mother, it was devastating. do you remember that moment?
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>> some day a person wouldn't ever forget. >> the victim's sister pam heard the news from her father. >> yeah, he told me that he would never be able to get out. and that it was over, you know. >> you didn't really feel a sense of relief, did you? >> yeah, i did. but then again it was also pain, you know. it was like, why? why? you know, why him? why? >> why would barry do that? >> yeah. he was never mean to me, you know. i didn't know of him to be crazy or nothing. >> yet, at sentencing, barry beach's life was, for all intents and purposes, finished. how long is your sentence? >> i'm doing 100 years dangerous, no parole, no furlough, hard labor. >> in the spring of 1984, barry beach entered montana state prison as a dead man walking. he'd surely die here, never to be eligible for parole. never have a chance.
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or would he? >> when we come back, strangers become believers that barry beach is innocent. >> does anybody care who that bloody palm print belongs to? they're afraid of the truth. >> a new look at the evidence. when "whispers in a small town" continues. [ male announcer ] this is the land of giants. ♪ home of the brave. ♪ it's where fear goes unwelcomed... ♪ and certain men... find a way to rise above. this is the land of giants. ♪ guts. glory. ram.
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by 2007, barry beach had spent more than half his life at montana state prison or a similar lockup. locked up at age 20 for the murder of kim nees, he'd watched his 30s come and go. he was 45 now. he never had a parole hearing. and he would never get one. with a sentence of 100 years, it was behind this forbidding wall of barbed wire that barry beach was destined to die. you're the worst of the worst. >> obviously the judge felt that i should never see society again. >> you're not going to get out of here, are you? >> when they gave me 100 years, that means they gave me 100 years to prove that i didn't commit the crime that put me behind prison bars. >> and when barry beach sat down with us in january 2007, he had spent decades, literally, proclaiming his innocence, writing letters, filing appeals that went nowhere, time after time. asking for help.
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would anyone, he wondered, ever listen? a few did. until one of those letters reached this man. >> we get 1100, 1200 letters a year from people asking for our help. >> this is the reverend jim mccloskey, the founder of a group called centurion ministers. back in 1980, mccloskey, a former business executive then attending princeton divinity school went to work as student chaplain at new jersey's trenton state prison. there he became involved in the case of a convict who was later revealed to be innocent. and the experience changed his life, too. >> i started centurion. this is my sense of spiritual calling, to do this work. but we could care less if those whom we serve, the convicted innocent in prison, it doesn't matter if they have any religious inclination at all. >> and centurion, running with a staff of just six and paid only through donations, has compiled quite a record. over 30 years mccloskey's group has freed from prison or death
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row 47 men and women wrongly convicted. so what does it feel like when one of these people gets out of prison? >> let me just say this, it doesn't get old. it's new, and joyful every time. >> but back in 1991, when centurion received barry beach's first letter asking for help, it took six long years before a review was even begun. you have to be convinced beyond any doubt that somebody is actually innocent? >> yes, we do. we don't take a case on unless we are convinced of the person's innocence. >> so when centurion's team, which included attorney peter camel and investigator richard hepburn went to work, reading reports and trial transcripts, they took a hard look at any clues that might have told them barry beach was, or was not, telling the truth. >> when i read it originally, the fact that this 17-year-old youngster, not a master criminal, was able to create
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this havoc, and not leave one single skintle la of evidence that he was even there, i was suspicious. >> but before centurion would commit to the case, its investigators wondered if anyone would, what about that confession taken by louisiana detectives back in 1983? after all, barry beach was read his rights, again and again. before he admitted to murder, and then offered details of the crime police said only the killer would have known. how in the world could any serious investigation avoid those innes capable facts? there's a signed confession. you ask anybody around the country, of course he did it. >> there have been over 200 men exonerated by dna from sexual assaults or murder, convicted, imprisoned, who have later been freed and exonerated. 25% of those men have falsely confessed to that crime when arrested under interrogation.
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>> so, centurion, knowing that false confessions do indeed occur, dug a little deeper, consulting an expert who conducted a detailed analysis of beach's 13-page confession and made a remarkable discovery. beach's confession conflicted with the one thing investigators say never lies. the physical evidence at the crime scene. what did he get wrong? well, for one thing, beach told his interrogators that kim had tried to get away from him by scrambling out the driver's side door. but the evidence showed she'd actually come out the passenger side door. right where that still unidentified bloody palm print was found. >> all of the forensic evidence shows she was pulled out the passenger side. that's very clear from the blood spatter, inside and outside the truck. >> there was more. beach told police his fingerprints were found on the truck because he wiped them off. centurion wondered how could beach wipe off his prints but leave more than two dozen others
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undisturbed? then there was this. beach told police he'd put the body in a plastic garbage bag feet first, and then had dragged kim down to the river by her shoulders. but the evidence? showed kim was dragged not by her shoulders, but by her feet. and police found not one shred of any plastic garbage bag anywhere along the rocky trail from the pickup to the river. finally, beach told police he'd made at least three separate trips to the river to dispose of the murder weapons, then the body, then the truck keys and kim's jacket. as if the river were mere yards away. rather than the length of a football field. >> barry's story, and that's all it is, is a story. and all the elements of the story do not comport with the forensic facts and circumstances of the case, the crime scene, and the way the crime unfolded. >> then, with a little digging,
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centurion uncovered what is believed to be some pretty disturbing information about the louisiana detectives. remember those three louisiana murders about which detectives once questioned beach? well, months later, the same detectives filed charges against two other men who confessed to those murders. but later, their charges would be dropped. their confessions revealed to be false. >> so you've got detectives with a track record of claiming that they've got detailed confessions with people, with information that only the killer could know, and those are false confessions. and it speaks volumes about what they claim to be the validity of barry's confession. >> the doubts were adding up for centurion. after coming to the conclusion that beach's confession was false, its investigators made dozens of trips to montana, searching for witnesses. and physical evidence that might show barry beach was not the killer. it turned out the only physical
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evidence the state claimed might link beach to the murder was a pubic hair found on kim nees' sweater. a hair an analyst said had similar characteristics to the hair of barry beach. he didn't say it was barry's hair. just that it could have been. but it turned out that the hair and all the other evidence from the case had disappeared from montana's crime lab. >> now we asked the crime lab to allow us to have an expert go in, take a look at their recordkeeping, and try to do an inventory to see if maybe they misfiled it, misplaced it. and the word was absolutely no. nobody's coming in to our crime lab. >> any explanation? >> no. no. they just were not going to let you in there. >> but what about the evidence that does exist? the fingerprint, and that bloody palm print. remember, none of those prints belong to barry beach. so centurion wondered, couldn't those prints be compared with alled other potential suspects in the case? >> does anybody care who that
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bloody palm print belongs to? do you guys really care? they really wanted to discover who that belonged to, they could do it. but they won't do it. and you know why they won't do it? because they're afraid of the truth. >> but if barry beach did not kill kim nees, then who did? >> well, that's what makes this case a little different. because centurion's team not only believes that barry beach is innocent, but that it knows who is guilty. and you're about to hear from the witnesses who say they know the real story of what happened that night so long ago. coming up, troubling recollections. >> she was talking about how the wrong person got put in jail. >> what a strange thing to hear. >> it gave me the creeps. she said, we got away with the perfect crime. >> when "dateline" continues. [ female announcer ] life is full of compromises. but when it comes to what you really love, you shouldn't have to sacrifice.
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by 2007, barry beach had been behind bars in montana for 24 years. now, after a decade of work, investigators from centurion ministries had come to a conclusion, even though beach
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confessed to killing kim nees back in the summer of 1979, he was, they believed, an innocent man. >> we have not developed any information that would tell us, hey, maybe barry's guilty. because if we did, i can assure you that centurion ministries would have dropped this case years ago, and moved on to more fertile fields. >> i can see the stakes. i mean you guys are just trying to be heroes at the expense of justice. >> we're not afraid of saying we made a mistake. we've done it before. and we'll probably do it again. but in this case, i don't have any information that says we're wrong. >> but it was the secrets in this old town that persuaded centurion it had a different kind of case, that it was able to say not only barry beach was innocent, but that it knew or thought it knew who might be the real killers. for 25 years the rumors had persisted that a group of girls killed kim nees.
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and now centurion's investigators encountered more than just rumors. what did centurion have to point to a group of killers? remember, the prosecution's theory and barry beach's confession was that beach alone killed kim nees. at this popular party spot about a half mile outside town near the poplar river sometime after 1:30 on the morning of june 16th, 1979. but listen to this witness, found by centurion. a rancher who says he saw kim nees' pickup at 2:30 a.m., heading out of poplar toward the spot where she was found dead just hours later. >> what i remembered the most about it, is the pickup was so full of people. >> could you tell if they were boys or girls? >> no. but i mean, it was just full of people. >> the state claims the rancher has changed his story since the days after the murder.
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could it be a false memory? >> no, i can see it. >> next centurion's investigators found this rancher who says he got a phone call just a couple of hours later, before dawn. >> and it was from a lady by the name of sissy atkinson. >> sissy atkinson. that's a name to remember. >> she proceeded to tell me that they found kim nees' body down by the train bridge. >> what did you think when y you -- >> how did she know? >> how, indeed? especially given the hour. what time was it? >> around 5:00. >> 5:00 a.m. how could she see a body then, a full two hours before it was discovered by the police? then there was this. centurion's investigators found a man who said years later he'd overheard sissy atkinson making incriminating statements in a factory where they both worked. >> she was talking about the kim
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nees murder. and how the wrong person got put in jail. >> what a strange thing to hear. >> it gave me the creeps. you know, and as she walked by, she looked at me, and she said, we got away with the perfect crime. >> finally, there's one more person who claims he heard sissy atkinson talk about the murder. and the last person you think would ever come forward. >> i think kim nees is looking over sissy's shoulder all the time. >> this man's name is jay dean. his last name? atkinson. yes, sissy atkinson's brother. during a visit to montana state prison where he was serving time on drug charges, we asked to see him. we asked if he had any information about the murder. and to our surprise, he said, yes. the story goes this way, says j.d. one night he and sissy were talking, and she was high. did your sister, sissy, tell you that she was there the night
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that kim nees was killed? >> well, the way she said it, that they were partying down there. >> and there were other girls there, too? >> yeah. >> how much did she get out before she dropped off? >> well, just that one of them girls come running around the pickup with a crescent wrench. >> remember the medical examiner said at least one of the weapons that killed kim nees was likely a crescent wrench. but j.d. atkinson said his sister passed out before saying any more. >> one of the things we keep hearing from the state is these girls, if they were involved, wouldn't have kept quiet. somebody would have heard something over the years. and these people who have come forward did hear something. and they didn't keep quiet. and that's why it's important. >> but, after all these years, does it really add up to new evidence? all you have is just a lot of hearsay evidence that says the hearsay evidence about barry isn't really very good. >> we claim it's not hearsay,
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when you have sissy atkinson confessing to being one of four girls who were killing kim. that's not hearsay. that's a confession. >> we wondered, what would those girls, named as suspects by centurion in this long-ago murder, have to say about all this? we've heard a lot of stories. what happened that night? you're about to hear their side of the story. >> coming up -- >> why would we have witnesses who say that you said that you got away with the perfect crime? >> you know -- never ever came out of my mouth. never. >> when "whispers in a small town" continues. you eating the? oh, it's their new oatmeal. well what's all that la-de-da? fresh blueberries, walnuts -- in oatmeal? in my day, oatmeal had two ingredients, oat and meal... not all that fancy-pants whatnot. [ female announcer ] introducing new blueberry banana nut oatmeal. i have got to blog about this. [ female announcer ] loaded with fresh blueberries and just 290 calories.
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in this remote corner of northeastern montana, clouds of suspicion had settled over a number of women in the decade since the murder of kim nees. and now investigators for barry beach, the poplar man who served nearly 24 years in prison for the murder, were seeding those clouds anew, riding into town, naming these same women as the real killers. and one name in particular had come up again and again. the alleged ringleader, sisty atkinson. and what might she have to say about the allegations all these years later? >> i had no knowledge of it.
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i was not there. i had no participation in it. >> this is sissy atkinson. 51 years old in 2007 when we sat down with her. an addict, admittedly. cocaine, meth, painkillers. and she was, perhaps understandably, not entirely happy about still facing questions from us, or centurion, about this murder, more than three decades ago. >> i told those ministry guys, i said, when we all die and go to heaven, and you guys find out that i had no knowledge of it, i was not there, i had no participation in it, i don't know who did it, i hope you guys will be gentlemen enough to come and find me in heaven and tell me you're sorry. >> in fact, said sissy, on the night of the murder she was, indeed, with that group of girls, the subject of the rumor.
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but she said that after buying beer for some underage teens at a local bar, and then the police coming by, she made a request to one of the girls. >> so i said, could you please take me home? you know. i don't want to be caught. she drove me to my home and i went in and i went to bed. >> so you were in bed by when that night, do you remember? >> oh, 11:00. >> 11:00 at night. >> yeah, mm-hmm. >> who can back up that alibi? >> well, nobody, my mom's not here no more. and i lived with my mom, just me and my mom and baby. >> we have heard from maybe, i don't know, half a dozen people. >> mm-hmm. >> who put you there that night. >> no. >> not possible? >> not possible whatsoever. it would make me go crazy if i knew that. >> well, that's the allegation that it kind of did over the years. that maybe the reason why you've had trouble with drugs is because -- >> oh, no, there's different reasons. >> why would we have witnesses who say that you said a few
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years after the murder that you got away with the perfect crime? >> you know, that -- never ever came out of my mouth. never. >> but what would sissy atkinson say when she learned that one of her accusers was her own flesh and blood. >> why would your own brother say that you started to tell him about how you were involved in that? >> what brother? >> j.d. >> j.d., no. i don't even know what he's talking about. i've never talked to him about that. ever. >> well, as you've seen, that's not what j.d. atkinson told us during our interview at the montana state prison. so we played the interview for his sister. >> how much did she get out before she dropped off? >> well, just that one of them girls come running around the pickup with a crescent wrench. in my own mind i think kim nees is looking over sissy's shoulder all the time. >> oh. i'm really going to confront him on this. because, he -- he's trippin'.
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>> is it possible that it's blocked somehow? >> in my mind? >> yeah. >> no. i've got a very, very good memory. >> i don't want to be cruel when i say this, but if you do have a really good memory. >> mm-hmm. >> you're probably the only addict on the face of the earth that does. what is it going to take to stop the whispers? >> i don't know. i don't care. because i'm not involved. let them talk all they want. >> and, in fact, there is no physical evidence linking sissy atkinson to the crime scene. that bloody palm print? not hers. no fingerprints, either. >> i have been cleared of everything, the hand print, everything. if i was down there, i'm sure they would have found some kind of dna on me. you know. something. >> after our interview with sissy, we went looking for more of those girls, now women, who witnesses have placed at the scene. another name that comes up again and again is maude greyhawk. we tried repeatedly to reach her. but could not.
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and a third name is jo ann jackson. like sissy, jo ann says she was home. in bed. hours before the murder. >> i don't have any reason to be implicated in this whatsoever. you know. i had -- i went home. i talked to my mother. >> do you know what time of night that was? >> around 11:00. >> and after that you have no idea what happened? >> no. >> jo ann jackson's fingerprints and palm prints have also been compared to those left at the scene. no match. yet, there are several others centurion says, at least four women and two men, who might have been there, whose prints have never been compared. a lot of kids were home by 11:00 that night it turns out. >> well, i don't know why. you know, i just don't understand. because my sister was with me. and that's the weird thing. you know, they must have questioned her 10,000 times, too, and she said the same thing. >> so where does all this leave barry beach? what is the truth? well, centurion's investigation
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would soon lead to something beach had been seeking for decades. a remarkable hearing. unlike any ever held before in the state of montana, maybe in all the united states. a new trial, of sorts. and, yes, a shot at freedom. coming up, great expectations. >> you've got this sort of shine in your eyes. you really think you're going to get out of here? >> yes, sir. >> when "dateline" continues. [ male announcer ] it would be easy for u.s. olympian meb keflezighi to deposit checks at the nearest citibank branch. ♪ like this one. ♪ or this one. ♪ or, maybe this one. ♪
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just waiting at every turn. verbolten -- a new multi-launch coaster coming to busch gardens. brave the black forest. it's the case that became a mystery of a lifetime. who murdered poplar high school valedictorian kim nees, and why would a young man confess to a crime he later says he didn't commit?
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after more than 20 years in prison, barry beach is about to get his first true chance at freedom. his defense team says the real killers are still out there. a group of mean girls, jealous of kim. will the state believe him this time? do you believe him? let's keep watching. here's keith morrison. >> in the summer of 2007, a room deep inside montana's state prison would be the scene of something extraordinary. after seven years of investigation, barry beach's team from centurion ministries had gathered all its evidence and witnesses, and filed a petition, asking montana's board of pardons and parole for a chance to make its case that barry beach was an innocent man. wrongly imprisoned. and the response from the board was amazing, unprecedented. the board said, yes. it would hear the case for beach's innocence. the centurion team gathered in
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montana for that hearing. what is your feeling today as you prepare for this barry beach hearing? >> for them to initiate this and conduct a factual hearing on innocence, and innocence alone, it's never happened in the united states before that i'm aware of. >> and the stakes could not have been higher. the board of pardons and parole had immense power. it could recommend to the governor a full pardon. it could commute the sentence. it could reduce the sentence. or deny the request altogether. and barry beach would, in that case, most likely spend the rest of his days in prison. beach, having lost every appeal he'd ever filed, having waited decades for this day, entered in shackles, but felt exhilaration. aren't you afraid to get your hopes up? i mean you've got this sort of shine in your eyes, like you're on to something here. but, you know, they might just send you back and say forget about it, barry. >> they've done that to me in
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the past. as has every court in the united states of america. but i still got a team behind me that's fighting for me. >> you really think you're going to get out of here? >> yes, sir. >> the room at the prison was filled with beach's supporters. here was his mother, who stood by him now for more than two decades and watched the wild teenager grow into something of a boy scout, by all accounts, behind bars. active in prison ministry. native american groups. a respected man. how do you feel about him and how he's handled all of this? >> barry's my hero. >> your hero? >> at times when i felt down, barry's the one who's lifted me up. >> even pam nees johnson, kim's sister, felt compelled to attend, 28 years after she lost her only sibling. but in all those years, barry's confession never seemed fully believable. not to her. why is it so important to know? >> because i'm the kind of a person, i ask why everything? why, why, why, you know? >> and the burden to prove that
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kim nees was, indeed, killed by someone else, was now on the shoulders of beach's defense team from centurion. first, the defense calls an expert in false confessions. >> it's one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction. >> professor richard leo examined barry beach's confession. he found it lacked specifics that, as police claimed, only the killer could have known. >> was there any particular fact, when you analyzed mr. beach's confession, that suggested to you that this is something that is unique knowledge that wasn't out there in the public realm that mr. beach described? >> not that i can think of, no. >> in fact, beach's defense team alleged the montana sheriff mahlum was feeding information to detective jay via in louisiana who repeated the information to beach, who, in confession mode, parroted the information back. too many details in the 13-page confession for via only to have spoken to the montana sheriff twice. so the defense team called this
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sheriff's dispatcher. who, sure enough, claimed there were a lot more than just two calls. ample opportunity to feed case details to beach. >> how many and turn to the total number of calls do you think came in from louisiana during this time period? >> i bet you there was at least ten in the log. >> so centurion moved to the big question. if barry beach wasn't the killer, was it that group of girls? remember, at least two of them claim they were home in bed be11:00 p.m. that night, hours before the murder. to knock down those alibis the defense called the owner of the bar who said she knows where sissy atkinson and those other girls were that night. and they were not at home in bed. >> they gather around sissy and them, and they'd leave, and i'd get them out of there and then they'd want to come back in and i just had trouble all night with them. >> all the way up till closing time?
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and closing was at 2:00. >> 2:00. >> next centurion calls witnesses tying sissy and a larger group to the crime. that rancher who said he saw kim nees' truck cab filled with people about 2:30 a.m. could you tell how many occupants were in the pickup? >> at least five. >> the man who said he got a phone call from sissy two hours before kim nees' body was discovered. >> i don't know if that young man did or did not do it. but i know one thing, i got the phone call. >> there were more. the co-worker who claimed sissy confessed to him. >> she looked right at me and she said, we got away with the perfect crime. >> then, sissy atkinson's brother j.d. took the stand. and told the same story he told "dateline." >> and she mentioned that she thought somebody was chasing kim around with a wrench or something. >> after trying to tie sissy atkinson to the crime through her own words the defense next moved to do the same with
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another mom, long suspected of involvement, maude greyhawk. greyhawk's sister-in-law testified. that maude had made a startling admission. >> she said, all i did was kick her in the head a few times. and i lured her down there. >> finally, beach's defense team subpoenaed the two women whose names first surfaced in the days right after the murder, was were still being whispered decade later, sissy atkinson and maude greyhawk. maude greyhawk first agreed to appear and then didn't show up. but sissy atkinson did attend the hearing. and attempted to answer all those lingering questions. about her whereabouts that night, and her credibility now. what did she do the night of the murder? remember, sissy told us she'd been dropped off at her house about 11:00 p.m. well, now, she was saying something rather different. >> you're now saying that after you bought the beer you walked home? >> i went home, yes.
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>> do you recall telling the attorney general, i had them take me home? >> you know, that's been so many years ago, and i'm -- i, now he, had a drug problem all these years. >> is it possible you didn't go home? >> no. i did go home. >> and about the call she allegedly made about kim's body being found? >> i don't think i did. i was still sleeping by then. >> and what about all those admissions she's accused of making about her involvement in the murder? including the one to her own brother? >> never, ever, ever discussed kim nees, maude, any of them, ever. >> and so beach's defense team from centurion ministries rested its case. confident it had raised serious doubts about the trial that convicted barry beach all those years ago. there was that potentially tainted confession. the total lack of physical evidence implicating beach. and centurion's theory that kim
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nees was killed by a group of out-of-control girls jealous of a college-bound valedictorian about to leave poplar behind. but now it was the turn of the state of montana. and the one-time prosecutor turned two-term governor mark rosco was about to offer testimony of his own. >> when we come back. the man behind the prosecution stands behind his case. >> it's not a theory or a premise. it's overwhelmingly powerfully true. >> and barry beach makes his case. >> i did not kill kim nees. >> when "whispers in a small town" continues. ♪ all righty. oh, oh. you are a little biscuit. i'm carol. uh, we should skedaddle 'cause it's girls' night. so...okay. oh, wow. you got a skinny-dipping scene after the duel, right? well, i -- shh, shh, shh. show. don't tell. [ male announcer ] your favorite movies right when you want them. just a little -- okay. oh, wow. [ male announcer ] watch unlimited tv episodes and movies instantly through your game console or other devices, all for only 8 bucks a month from netflix.
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members of montana's board of pardons and parole had now heard from two dozen witnesses who'd come forward with information that barry beach's defense team believed cleared beach of murder. >> she said she got away with the perfect crime. >> and pointed, the defense said, to a group of girls as the true killers of kim nees. >> she said, all i did was kick her in the head a few times. >> now, as prosecutors from the montana attorney general's office prepared to make their case, the sheriff who put barry beach in prison was facing the prospect of one of his biggest cases ever coming unraveled. >> you know, if the conviction is expunged, that's a travesty,
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because barry beach killed kim nees. >> first sheriff dean mahlum took the stand to flatly deny the allegations that he fed enough information to louisiana detectives to frame beach. remember, an ex-employee testified mahlum took ten or more phone calls from jay via that day. >> i think i had two with sergeant via, as i recall, on the 7th. >> then, the state called back jay via himself. one of the louisiana detectives who took beach's confession, back in 1983. >> as you sit here today, do you have any doubts about the confession barry beach gave you on january 7th? >> absolutely none whatsoever. >> and then via's partner in taking the confession, the closer, retired commander alfred calhoun, beach accused him of screaming and threatening to put him to death in louisiana's electric chair. he described the moment he says beach broke down in that interrogation room. >> when i told him that i believed he was being deceptive to me, mr. beach kind of threw
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his hands up a little bit like this, and stated, i have a decision by the right rear tire of the truck. >> did you have any motive for getting barry beach to confess to a montana homicide? >> only to seek the truth. >> finally, the prosecution in the case, former montana governor marc racicot, took the witness stand, with a passionate defense of his prosecution of barry beach. >> it's not a theory or a premise, it's overwhelmingly powerfully true. >> the former prosecutor dismissed arguments that beach's confession was somehow off on a number of points. and he claimed that even though no murder weapon was ever found, much less connected with beach, and no dna linked beach to the crime scene, and no fingerprints, nor foot prints, or that bloody palm print were ever found to be his, he was guilty. because his confession itself amounted to incontrovertible physical evidence. >> you could go all the way from
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the -- the blows being struck, you had her sitting in the driver's side. you had the wounds to the head, created by a crescent wrench which mr. beach described. you had the gouges in the -- in the steering wheel. i mean we could go on and on. each one of those is a piece of physical evidence found at the scene corroborating mr. beach's testimony. >> is there any question in your mind, with all the information that you have available to you, that mr. beach is guilty as the jury found him? >> you know, mr. curtis, it is a grave and very serious responsibility a prosecutor performs. every moment in time i performed to the highest standards, and within ethical guidelines. there is not one moment of doubt ever in my mind, since i have looked at this confession, and been a part of this case, that, in fact, barry beach is guilty as charged. >> barry, of course, has protested for years that the confession was coerced and that he didn't kill that girl.
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>> well, he's posited several theories. he on one occasion said his confession was inaccurate. another occasion he said it was coerced. another occasion he said he was drugged. then he said he doesn't remember giving the confession. you can pick any number of theories barry has said about his confession. >> there's a basket of witness statements coming from poplar, all these years later. the fellow who said he saw four or five people in the pickup truck with kim nees leaving the gas station. >> there were no fingerprints of any of those people in the truck. >> the fact that not one, not two, not three, but about four different people have heard sissy atkinson say over the years i did this thing. >> not a scintilla of proof to support that. >> and now it was time for the man at the center of the case, barry beach himself, to face the board and make his case for freedom. >> mr. beach, will you raise your right hand? >> it would be up to the defendant to speak for himself. >> and i want to thank the parole board members for giving me this chance to come here today and tell you face to face i did not kill kim nees.
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>> prosecutors trying to keep beach behind bars would get the first crack. hammering beach for changing his story over the years. and for suggesting that louisiana detectives coerced him, drugged him, or somehow made him unable to recall his own confession back on january 7th, 1983. >> seems to me from listening to your testimony that you can remember everything that benefited you on january 7th, but anything that hurts you, your memory has gone hazy or you can't remember. >> i don't know that anything on january 7th benefited me. but, my memory did begin to fade later on in the evening. >> so you can't remember giving your confession? >> correct. >> you can't remember the officers recording your confession? >> no, i do not. >> even though you're not denying that you actually gave the confession? >> i'll never deny that this took place. look at what it's cost. >> you can't claim that you were coerced and not remembering giving the confession at the same time. so barry beach's credibility is
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more than a little suspect here. >> but beach's defense team, when its turn came, gently led beach through the confession process. >> at some point in time i broke weak, and i made the biggest mistake of my life. by breaking weak. >> and when you say broke weak, what are you talking about? >> they broke me. i mean, i just wanted out of there. and i didn't care what it took to get out of there. i didn't want to go through what alfred calhoun told me. alfred calhoun told me he would watch me fry in the electric chair. and i didn't want to go through that. >> were you down at the park on the evening -- ors early morning hours of june 16th of 1979 when kim was killed? >> no, i wasn't there. i had no involvement with kim nees' murder whatsoever. >> but beach, it turned out, was not the final witness. now there was a surprise. remember during his original trial, beach said he was at home asleep when the murder occurred but didn't have anybody to vouch for his alibi.
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until now. 28 years later. is this the first time you've ever got the chance to give any kind of public testimony about what you observed on the night of june 15th, 1979? >> it is. >> her name is barbara solinda. at the time of the hearing a 47-year-old youth counselor and mother from california. and barry beach's sister. and with beach looking on in tears, his sister told the board that despite her late appearance, he told the same story from day one. barry was right where he said he was the night of the murder. at home. asleep. >> so when i went upstairs i was able to see by the light that barry was in his bedroom. he was in bed asleep. >> was his bedroom door open? >> yes. we all slept with our bedroom doors open. >> about what time is that? >> i would say it was about 12:40. >> why wait so long to tell her story?
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well, she didn't, she claimed. back then she said she told the sheriff and she told barry's original defense attorney what she'd seen. but the attorney told her she'd have no credibility since she was barry's sister. said nobody would believe her. but would they now? >> any time a family member comes forward and provides an alibi, there's bound to be skepticism. but barry's sister presented herself to the board, exposed herself to cross-examination, her demeanor was examined. she gave a very complete, very credible story. >> not surprisingly, the former prosecutor saw it quite differently. >> his attempt to have his sister testify at the clemency hearing, providing an alibi, that she'd never mentioned for 25 years, i think evinces the character and quality of the case that was presented by centurion. that's why i say i don't question their motives. i don't question their hearts. but i do question their competency, and the character of the investigation. >> the actual innocence phase of
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the hearing was over. but barry beach didn't have to be innocent to be released from prison. and the board was about to hear a groundswell of support for setting him free. coming up -- >> never give up until i walk out. >> who will win this time? the prisoner or the police? your confidence is overwhelming. >> good. >> the parole board makes its decision. when "dateline" continues. do you read out loud or in your head? do you need a lamp to see? and does it leave your bedmate be? don't you wish there was a light that wouldn't keep them up all night? if so, you'll be happy to know, our newest nook now comes with glow. introducing nook simple touch with glowlight. the only e-reader made for bedtime reading. find your nook at your neighborhood barnes & noble and at target.
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here in the summer of 2007, in this nondescript square room in a montana prison, the state board of pardons and paroles was making history. never before had a man in barry beach's position been given such an opportunity to make his case for freedom, after so many years in prison. remember, the board could recommend that montana's governor pardon beach, commute his sentence, make him eligible for parole, or leave beach at montana state prison probably forever. >> we will reconvene the beach clemency hearing. >> one last thing. the board would open a second hearing to listen to people. ordinary people who wanted to talk about barry beach. and to make personal pleas for his release. >> he said you need to concentrate on my voice. i'm going to get you out of this block. >> there was the female prison guard who told of nearly passing out on a cell block once. she came to thank beach, whom she said protected her from what could have been unspeakable harm. >> but i know that to him. and that's a debt that i could
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never pay, no matter what i do. >> then, a virtual who's who of montanans. a former state senator, who said beach helped quell tensions during a near riot. the chief actuary for montana's state fund, who met beach in prison ministry. >> i would have no problem with him staying overnight in my home. >> and finally, a surprise witness. pam johnson, the victim's sister, barry beach's one-time girlfriend, who'd always harbored doubts about the conviction. still, after all these years, unable to believe. >> she is not emotionally capable of speaking right now, so i'd just like to read this, what she wrote last night. barry and i were close friends years ago, and i honestly believe that barry did not kill my sister. finding the truth will set barry free, as he should be. and that's from her heart. >> has been heard --
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>> minutes later the unprecedented hearing was history. >> this hearing stands in adjournment. >> and barry beach was cuffed and shackled, temporarily, at least, for his return to the montana state prison. would it be for the last time? >> never give up until i walk out. the truth is there. and the truth is that i did not kill kim nees. >> but beach's mother dreams of her son's release were consuming her. >> would take awhile for both of us to catch our breath, i'm sure. >> but you imagine the moment? >> it's impossible not to. 24 years is a long time to wait for that. >> but for the sheriff who put beach behind bars, any decision by montana's board of pardons and paroles to offer beach clemency, or commute his life without parole sentence, would be devastating. >> if they vacate the judgment,
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it says that your belief in the veracity of that confession was false. >> no. what it says is that someone else killed kimberly nees, and no one else killed kimberly nees. >> your confidence is overwhelming. >> good. >> and then, silence. a week went by. no decision. then two. and after three weeks of private deliberation behind closed doors, the board of pardons and paroles issued an e-mail it had reached a decision. and it was unanimous. in the matter of barry beach, the answer was, no. no pardon. no commutation. no clemency. no parole. period. barry beach stays in prison. for life. no appeal. >> my initial reaction was one of utter disbelief. >> for centurion ministries it was quite simply stunning. >> they didn't buy a single one of your arguments. >> not one. >> centurion believed it had
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proved beach's confession was clearly false. but the board called it, quote, a as compelling as fingerprints in consistency in keeping with the actual, physical evidence. centurion had pointed out that none of the physical evidence like foot prints or fingerprints or the palm print connected beach to the crime. but the board wrote that there was no reason to believe the footprints are in any way connected to this murder. and said the telltale bloody palm print had little probative value. centurion had presented witnesses who offered evidence kim nees was killed by a group of girls. but the board called their testimony amorphous statements, and said the victim's wounds were more typically reflective of a single assailant, than any group. >> this case did not have any kind of persuasive force to it. >> the parole board declined "dateline's" request for interviews. but for former prosecutor marc racicot, the decision confirmed
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what he had always believed to be a righteous conviction. so now the questions have all been laid to rest? >> well, i think all of the -- all the reasonable questions that people can answer, everything that -- that could be done has been done in order to answer every question that people have. >> well, not quite. centurion ministries founder jim mcclose ski, and attorney peter camiel who worked for nearly a decade on the beach case said it seemed to them montana's board of pardons and paroles simply ignored or twisted the evidence pointing to beach's innocence. >> their opinion exhibited a real distortion of the facts of the case. in the end, we really have to question their sincerity. >> that's pretty serious charge. pretense, question their sincerity. >> absolutely. >> what, then, happens to barry beach? does he die in prison? >> not if we can help it. >> bravado, perhaps?
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or an insatiable need to tilt at windmills? it surely seamed the campaign to free barry beach was lost. but what happened next. well, you have to see to believe. when we come back, new witnesses, after more than 30 years. and they shed a whole new light on the case. >> i could hear all these girls hollering and saying, get her. >> when "whispers in a small town" continues. started running when he was six and he didn't stop for three days and nights as he escaped life as a child soldier. twenty years later, he was still running, he just had a different thing driving him. every step of the way. ♪ visa. supporting athletes and the olympic games for 25 years. join our global cheer.
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"planned parenthood we'res gonna get rid of that." romney is saying he'll deny women the birth control and cancer screenings they depend on. when romney says "do i believe the supreme court should overturn roe v. wade? yes." he's saying he'll deny women the right to make their own medical decisions and when his campaign can't say whether he'd support equal pay protections. "and we'll get back to you on that." romney's putting your paycheck at risk. planned parenthood action fund is responsible for the content of this advertising because mitt romney is out of touch and wrong for women.
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2008 dawned cold and cruel. at the state prison in deer lodge, montana. barry beach's now apparently permanent home. after an unprecedented week-long hearing, the board of pardons and parole had confirmed barry's 100-year sentence for the 1979 murder of the pretty high school valedictorian kim nees. to the dismay of the team that had been working to free him. not to mention barry's mom, bobbi. in fact, for her, the bad news was book-ended by even more grief and pain. days before the board's decision her husband died. and days after the ruling, her own health gave out. >> it was simply a stress-related heart attack. no blockages, thank goodness. >> but your body forcing you to fall apart? >> right.
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but i thought, well, god's promised this. >> there was something rather sad about her unshakable certainty in the face of the long parade of unkept promises. and the defense team at centurion seemed hardly more realistic than bobbi. >> what we decided to do was to go back to court. >> didn't it seem just a -- like almost tilting at windmills at that point? >> hope springs eternal. >> what they did was throw a legal hail mary. a motion that somehow found its way to montana's supreme court. it asked for the moon, in effect. it asked for a new judge to hear a whole new appeal of beach's conviction. >> just give us a fair judge. that's all we're asking for. >> so they asked. and then they waited. and the request was approved. but it took three long years for the next step. the supreme court kicked barry's case to vis courthouse in the geographic dead center of
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montana, a place called lewistown, where in august 2010, barry walked in to a courtroom to a chorus of applause. and then a "dateline" report on the murder of kim nees had long since aired, turning barry into something of a celebrity in montana. hoards of supporters were waiting for him in the courtroom. along with judge e. wayne phillips. >> all right, good morning, everyone. >> and another thing our "dateline" report had done? turn up new witnesses. >> when the whole story was told, and the "dateline" piece, these witnesses finally decided, you know, i know something that might be able to help out. >> that long-running local rumor that the real killers of kim nees were actually girls from her own high school class? the judge would hear much more about this. remember sissy atkinson? >> and i had no knowledge of it. i was not there. >> not so, said this man. who testified that sissy herself
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told him the story, several times. told him about the group of jealous girls, how they hit kim with a tire iron. rolled her body into a river. although in a bit of self-deprecating comic relief the witness admitted he was a bit hazy about it all because during his talks with sissy he was a drug addict. he was high. still -- >> the bottom line is, i know for a fact girls murdered kim nees, and i know he's not a girl. >> then there were two witnesses who came forward to say they work for the woman named jo ann jackson. and that jo ann told them both a similar story about a murder. but it wasn't until they saw the "dateline" report that they realized they should come forward. and tell authorities exactly what they learned. >> she told us about things that happened when she was a teenager that she and a group of girls took another girl by the water, she said they dragged her, beat her, and things got out of hand and she died. >> and she kept saying, i was
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not involved in it. but she knew the girls that had killed this girl. i couldn't believe she was telling me this, and i kind of like, jo ann, why would they do this? and she says, she was smart and she was going away to college. >> and then finally the star witness. her name is steffie eagleboy. she was just 10 years old, she said, on that summer night in june 1979, when she sat on the block overlooking the poplar river, and heard the sound that has ever since been her recurring nightmare. >> i could hear all these girls hollering, and saying, get her. and get the bitch. and just another girl was saying don't, please. it -- it was like they were chasing her or something. >> important stuff. so important that judge phillips questioned the witness himself. >> and did you hear screaming?
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>> yes. >> what kind of screams? >> like the -- a horrible scream. to me it was like a high-pitched, angry scream. hollering. it's something you don't forget. >> steffie eagleboy said she never came forward because of the other thing she saw from her perch on the bluff that night. soon after the girl stopped screaming, she said, a police car cruised up to the place where it happened, lingered briefly, and left. so then she wondered, who could she trust? no one. and so until now, she said not one word. centurion had once again presented what it felt was a powerful case for barry's innocence. what did barry think of these hearings? >> we were cautiously optimistic.
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barry was even more confident than we were. he said, he said, guys, this judge is going to reverse this conviction. he said, i'm convinced of that. i'm going home. >> you've been through that before. >> absolutely. deny, deny, denied for 29 years. let's not get your hopes up too high with the possibility they get smashed again. then you're going to really go in a deep depression. he says, i'm going home. i just got a good feeling about this judge. >> oh, but good feelings, and desired results, not always agree. this was the moment for that old cliche, the jury was out. except in this case, it was a jury of one. the judge e. wayne phillips, all up to him now. coming up, the judge decides. >> did you feel the heavy responsibility? >> oh, absolutely. it wears on you. because, somebody died. kim nees died.
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and never, ever forget that. >> all those years of nos, now might be answer be yes? and coming up friday on "dateline," the perfect catch. they were single and looking. but they never saw him coming. >> evil. probably one of the most evil people i've ever met. >> a one-time rap star stealing hearts and stealing money. >> how much did you get burned for? >> probably about $32,000. >> but she was determined to get revenge. with a little help from a friend, and hidden cameras. >> you decided to become bait? >> yes. >> could two women who had been conned turn the table? >> i was freaking out. because i could feel him patting my down my back. ♪
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>> when barry beach left this montana courtroom in the summer of 2011, the judge promised a ruling soon. for at least soon in legal language, which meant that barry beach went back to his prison cell and ticked off the days and weeks and months into the fall. his mother, too, were captive to heir own faith and optimism. but you can't get your hopes up
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too much, can you? i mean you've been whacked so often. >> it is hard to keep your -- keep your belief up sometimes. but, he had been faithful. >> and then, november 2011, the decision. a 30-page ruling. it was just hours before the thanksgiving holiday. judge e. wayne phillips ruled that there was clear and convincing evidence the jury could find barry beach an innocent man. for almost 30 years beach had been hearing the word, no. and now, finally, this time, it was yes. not freedom. but at least this. a chance, finally, to clear his name, for good. judge phillips granted a new trial. >> one of barry's supporters just had called me on the phone and i had just sat down to watch the news. and i said, be quiet. it's on right now. and she said, what? and i said, barry's going to be
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free. i just started praising god. it was just -- it was so -- it was so emotional for me. she had started crying and i started crying, and i couldn't wait to tell barry. >> it doesn't get any sweeter than this. especially because of all the bitterness that barry had experienced with this case. >> for so long. >> and so many denials. denial, denial. dismissal. dismissal. but finally, here was a man, a judicial authority who heard the evidence, and agreed that had, in his opinion, the future jury hears this evidence, that they would find mr. beach innocent. >> and here was something very unusual. after granting barry beach a new trial, judge e. wayne phillips agreed to sit down with "dateline" and explain his decision. >> i had a huge internal debate for much of the period after the hearing, in which i was trying
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to decide whether he should be let go. i mean, how could you rule as i did on the evidence i had and not also have to think about whether the guy should be just set free. >> did you feel a heavy responsibility? >> oh, absolutely. it wears on you. because somebody died. kim nees died. and never, ever forget that. i never forget that. >> the judge stopped short of declaring beach innocent. after all, there was that old confession on the file. but once he heard steffie eagleboy tell about hearing the murder happen -- >> and that was what was so convincing. it was that linchpin that convinced me that a jury, probably instructed, would have said, i've got doubt. i have reasonable doubt. about this man's guilt. >> all rise. >> but now, having granted a new trial, judge phillips faced another question.
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after 29 years in prison, should barry beach be released to wait for his new day in court? >> it's this court's determination that it can release mr. beach on his own recognizance. >> barry beach was hustled out of the courthouse to a jail just down the street, the paperwork was done, and minutes later, for the first time in nearly three decades, he was free. >> oh, mom. >> and safely in the arms of the woman who, through it all, has always been with him. >> most of all i just want to give glory to god. i want to praise god that carried me through. i love my mom. >> what was that like? >> unreal. absolutely unreal. citizens didn't even know me stopped, honking their horns, waving, congratulating.
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and it's been like that ever since. it hasn't stopped. the people have been just so, so compassionate to me. everywhere i go, hugging me, praying for me still. >> we never would have made it through the 29 years if it wasn't for our faith. never would have. >> every single year that i was imprisoned, every year i usually would fast in october, and i would ask god for a christmas miracle. and it took him a couple years, but he answered. >> barry lives in billings, montana, now with stella and zig ziegler. a restaurant owner and former county commissioner who met barry through prison ministries 27 years ago. now helping barry re-enter a world he doesn't recognize. with money saved in prison, barry bought a pickup. with the license plate that says it all. he's already started his own business. a maintenance company. >> you want to take all this stuff?
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>> all the while knowing the state of montana is appealing the judge's ruling to the montana supreme court. and intends, if necessary, to put him on trial again for the murder he, after all, confessed to, nearly 30 years ago. montana attorney general steve bullock, now candidate for governor, declined "dateline's" request for an interview. but his office issued a statement from the prosecutor handling the case, saying, the state has an obligation to defend a murder conviction rendered by a montana jury against a man who confessed to the most serious of crimes. this is one more step in a lengthy legal process, and the final word has not been spoken. and so, the strange tale ends for now. barry beach is the 48th person centurion has walked out of a prison. this time it took 12 years to make the case. twelve years and more than half a million dollars.
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you can learn a lot in life from people who've walked a hard road. from barry beach, after his three decades in prison, perhaps the lesson is simply, attitude. and if you like, grace. a man who, though his freedom may, in fact, be temporary, says he is willing to go through a trial, again, because he, too, wants to know the truth. >> justice for kim nees is not going to be served until the whole truth is discovered. and the preparation for a new trial gives me more of an opportunity to discover that truth. >> so you'll go through it. >> oh, i will. absolutely. >> you a little worried about it? >> no. my god didn't put me where i'm sitting at right now to let me down. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline" sunday. we'll see you again for "datel


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